Saturday in the Fourth Week of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 13:44-52; John 14:7-14]
Paul continues his address in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia. He is addressing "my fellow Israelites and God-fearers," that is, Jews along with proselytes to Judaism. His audience, then, in the synagogue is thoroughly Jewish, like Paul himself. Understandably, his sermon is the Jewish story as narrated in the scriptures. It's the very same audience Stephen was addressing earlier, and the very same story: "Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham." But, as in the case of Stephen, the way Paul tells Israel's story lands him in deep trouble with the very people, the Jews, whose story he is telling. As in the case of Stephen, everything goes fine up to the part about David, the kingship, and the Temple. Then Paul, like Stephen, gives a new ending to his version of the old story: "From David's descendants," says Paul, "God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus." The new ending throws the entire religious edifice of Judaism off balance. As they said about Stephen, "This man never stops speaking words against this holy place and the law; we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this Temple and will change the customs Moses delivered to us." All the familiar elements of the old story are there, but configured in a scandalous way so difficult to wrap your mind around. Both Stephen and Paul tell the old story in such a way that now Jesus, this rabbi from Galilee recently crucified by the Romans, is the true Davidic king, the true Temple, the end, that is, the fulfillment, of the Law of Moses, and the end of exile, that is, of estrangement from God through the forgiveness of sins.
In a recently published interview Pope emeritus Benedict sums up both the way the story should have ended, and the new ending given by Stephen and Paul and the early Church: Ancient Israel, he says, was convinced that the daily sacrifice for sins and above all the great liturgy of the Day of Atonement were necessary as a counterweight to the mass of evil in the world and that only through such rebalancing the world could, as it were, remain bearable. As for Christians, who were, let's remember, at first like Paul, Stephen, and Jesus himself, all devout Jews, the Temple was replaced by the resurrected body of the crucified Lord. In Jesus was the infinite love that alone could achieve an infinite atonement. Perhaps most subversive of all, in the Christian retelling of the old story, forgiveness and atonement were, through the crucified rabbi, offered to the enemy as well as to the righteous, to Rome and to the whole world-the Gentiles-as well as to pious Jews. The new way of telling the old story and of accounting for the data resulted in Stephen's death and Paul's rejection by his own and in the end, imprisonment. In the Gospel today, Jesus concentrates the new version of the story into an atom: "The Father who dwells in me is doing his works."
We live by story. We can understand the deadly conflicts in the Middle East as well as the political and cultural scenes in the US as the struggle over who has the right version of the old story. New Melleray Abbey has a story, the Cistercian Order has a story, each of us has a story. What we call conversion, I think, is the discovery of a key that reconfigures all the data, makes some of the data forevermore irrelevant while bringing the deeper meaning of other data into sharp and luminous relief. We can understand our anxiety and dis-ease as the tension between the old version of the story and the converted version still coming into focus. Conversion means pushing the off button on our familiar telling of our story and assuming our active and responsible role in the true one. "Amen amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these."